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Greece, Cyprus, Turkey...Oh My!!

10/4/09

There were three main ideas on the table for our honeymoon:

  • Japan & China,

  • Australia & New Zealand, and

  • a trip to the Mediterranean.

I've wanted to go to New Zealand since I saw the "Lord of the Rings" films; Tokyo has been on my list forever (and recently selected as next year's big trip).  Meg has been itching to go to India and she was also down for a big trip to Asia.  Where both of us agreed, though, is that we really wanted to get to Istanbul for a while now and it would be nice to go to the Greek Isles at some point in this lifetime...plus, my friend Claudia lives in Cyprus (south of Turkey and in-between the two main destinations), so why not do two weeks in five different destinations?

Pricing this out, we thought we'd come in just north of $5,000; that ended up being wrong, in part because of the poor dollar-to-Euro conversion rates (not a surprise) but in larger part because Turkey wasn't as cheap as we thought it was going to be.  And, while our main goal on this honeymoon was to relax and enjoy each other's company (a rousing success), there were a couple of down points on this journey thanks to weather, cats, airports and the view that in Istanbul, every single non-Turk is a customer.

But, more on that to come...enjoy the roundup!!


Athens--Thank God for Feta

After a fantastic wedding weekend, we knew that eventually, the weather gods would finally wipe the smile off of my face...and, we got lucky that the only bad weather we faced while on our two-week honeymoon was during our not-quite-three-day stay in Athens.  And, here's our main takeaway, bad weather or not, about Athens: there's simply nothing spectacular about the Athenian way of life, its people, its sights, or its food, and an aggressive tourist can see everything worth seeing in a day.

Yes, the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the Greek ruins scattered on the Acropolis hilltop are cool, but you have to take into account massive, massive amounts of tourists (and remember, we went in late September!) and scaffolding adorning all of the major sites.  I faced this problem in Rome as well...they're really only ruins if they are still RUINS.  The upkeep required on these sights means that the Parthenon was 50% covered with large metal pipes, meaning my pictures in a gray sky with scaffolding aren't exactly highlight material.  Still, a very impressive sight...ESPECIALLY at night.

Which brings us to our main attraction when it comes to Athens--dramatic lighting!!  Seriously, from our hotel rooftop in the touristy section of town, we had a great view of the Acropolis, but the way it was lit (by some fancy Swedish or German light architect, apparently) made it really frickin' cool to look at.  Then, heading out at night, you could see that the Greeks love that lighting thing too, because all of their important buildings and many of the restaurants around town were dramatically lit, too!  It became pretty funny when Meg and I started prospecting on how we could start doing this to our future apartments too...look, a dramatically lit mancave!!

The only other thing we really loved in Athens?  The cheese.  Specifically, the feta.  Meg was having cheese orgasms throughout our trip every time she could order baked or grilled feta from various menus; she swore it was the best feta she'd ever had, which I guess makes sense being that we were, you know, in Greece and all.  The food was generally not a highlight though, and from talking to other people who have spent time in Greece, the food was generally not great for them, either.  We made sure to eat in non-touristy restaurants for the most part, and for two of our dinners, we were confident we were the only non-Greeks eating there, and it didn't really matter--meats/game are generally overcooked, much like the vegetables, to ensure there are no calories or taste left in them.

(Please, save me the "oh, you just didn't eat at the GOOD restaurants/you didn't have a guide" bullshit; if you go to any major city in the world and eat 10-20 meals, you'll always have an accurate assessment of a city.  Without even knowing New York City, if I go to six random restaurants over any weekend, one or two of those meals are going to be amazing; in San Francisco, same thing.  Chicago, same thing.  DC?  Not a guarantee, because the food here is still, generally, average.  Same with Athens!)

The goal with Athens was really just to catch up on sleep and to adjust to the seven-hour time difference, so I was just looking to soak in the scene anyway.  And soak, I did.  Getting readjusted to the European sense of space is always interesting; people still have a habit of walking directly into me despite the fact that I'm the only black guy on the sidewalk; people waiting in lines generally wait right behind the next person, which is funnier when you go to turn around and you slam into a woman who thought she gave you enough space.  Stray cats and dogs roam free in Athens, a theme that would carry all the way to Istanbul; I'm still not sure when trash day is because there was trash everywhere, in heaping piles, and no one seemed all that fazed about it.  (New Orleans, you may have a run for your money during Mardi Gras season after all!)  Both Meg and I liked the overall look of the Greek people, particularly their fashion sense and women's strong attention to their feet, but the Greeks really reminded me of Bostonians in one way--they seem to really, really love Greeks, but not anyone else.  Because all Greeks look, essentially, the same (this is not like the mixing of, say, Brazilian, or Cuban, or Turkish people), and their written/verbal language is so ridiculous to pick up, Greeks are very exclusive and this was backed later when we saw our Greek-American friend Alex in the next leg of our trip.

In many ways, I'm glad that Athens came first because it was not the trip highlight.  Thankfully, the next leg of the trip was...


Santorini--Bingo

Many of you met an ex of mine named Penelope years ago; while we were dating, she did a trip to Santorini and sent home a postcard...the water was unnaturally blue in the picture but Penelope said it was the most beautiful place she had been, at the time anyway.  Since then, I've always had Santorini on my radar screen and I'm glad that we got to do it as part of my honeymoon because even if it really isn't the most beautiful place on earth, it at least warrants inclusion in the conversation.

I spent most of my three days in Santorini trying to take a bad picture, to no avail...even talentless schmoes like me can't fuck up the natural beauty that Santorini (sometimes referred to by its actual name, Thira) has to offer.  Meg booked us at a small bed & breakfast called the Remezzo Suites, and the views from the front door were quite impressive.  Basically, Santorini (one of the Greek Isles) has a number of small villages built into its mountainous terrain, meaning that basically everyone has a view of the ocean; the full-time population there is less than 10,000 folks, but during tourist season, the place is crushed thanks to most of the tourist action happening on the northern half of the island (in Fira and Oia) and the fact that north of the airport, there are basically only two main roads to carry everyone back and forth.

Meg and I rented an ATV for a short stretch so that we could make the drive around the island; by ATV, you could probably go from top to bottom in under two hours during the daytime.  That was awesome because, between our trips to a winery in the southern half of the island and up to Oia, the views are truly majestic; Santorini's bleached stone look is accented by blue roofs and shutters and doorways all over the place, making for a very cool look and what makes the pictures from there so popular. 

Like Athens, the people were nothing special in Santorini and the food was mostly a match, save for the spectacular feta and, of course, lots of tzatziki (Greek yogurt).  We finally began ordering only mezzes (apps), since the entree sizes in Greece were huge, but the quality of the food didn't really improve despite going to a couple of places off the beaten path.  One night, we had dinner in Oia with our Greek friend Alex, his wife Chrissie and our old friends Dave "The Financier" Lee and his girlfriend Jen; the food here was certainly better, but it didn't blow my mind.

The night we went out with this large group, though, it was enlightening to see my thoughts on Greek people confirmed.  Dave told me that the group basically had Alex do all the talking, ordering, bartering and navigating...in part, this is because he has the only one that spoke any Greek, but it also allowed Alex to endear himself--however briefly--to a particular shopkeep, hotel manager or head waiter before introducing his non-Greek friends...yes, it reminded me of what it might be like to be in the Mob too!!

We didn't sample the nightlife in Santorini, as our trip took us through town from a Sunday through a Wednesday during the end of the tourist season.  We stayed about a mile north of the action anyway (the "action" is in Fira), but if I go back, I'll need to be there when I can get a taste of what it's like to hang out with the club kids!

A note about Santorini--in case you haven't heard, staying in the Greek Isles is generally pretty costly.  We stayed in a somewhat cheaper hotel, given the cost of what was available, but you're still looking at anywhere from 150-800 euros a night in most cases, and that doesn't always include breakfast.  Restaurant prices stay in line with this; I don't think we dropped less than $100 USD at any of our meals there, and we didn't do anything really special.  Some of that is the poor dollar-to-euro conversion; some of that is tied to the whole island being tourist-friendly.  All of this is to say that you really can't get a "deal" in Santorini, so if you are a cheapskate, the island may not be for you.


Commentary:  The European Way of Life

Even before this trip, previous visits to Europe have always made me think that I would absolute love living in a place that appreciates the afternoon siesta as much as I do.  That, plus a slower pace, light but tasty meals, better air quality and loads of discotheques all wouldn't hurt the overall package.

Our honeymoon was another reminder that if I could just find a city that would make me want to move away permanently, I would do it in a few heartbeats...it used to be just one heartbeat, but with Meg in the picture, I can't exactly move off the grid on my own!  I love eating dinner late even at home, so eating dinner at 10 PM on a Wednesday doesn't seem weird to me at all...but, it was just great to go out to places in Greece, Cyprus and Turkey and always be the first or second couple at the restaurant if we got to the place before 10.  Walking is just a part of living in European cities (even IF you own a Smart vehicle or a moped), so taking a walk after dinner at 11:30 or midnight during the week was fun because everyone else was taking a walk after their dinners too.

As some of you know, I actually lost nine pounds during this trip; it wasn't for a lack of eating, and yes, I did do a lot of walking.  But, the upside of eating light meals is that it feels like you aren't carrying the weight around, even if the downside is that some of the fresh food was fresh but not all that flavorful.  It helps that I didn't have that much soda throughout the trip, but then again, I was pounding desserts after almost every meal.  It's easy to see why the shape of the European male is generally slim...it's hard to put on weight when your M.O. is to take a 30-minute walk after every dinner and the preferred serving size is an appetizer, not a full-blown entree.  It was also amusing to make this observation: for two weeks, I didn't see a single person running on city streets/sidewalks or coming to/from a gym in workout clothes.  I think that many Europeans play sports but I don't think I noticed in previous trips that most Europeans are not gym obsessed...the idea that I work out six days a week at home seemed silly in light of losing the weight that I lost while overseas just by walking around.

Throughout our trip, Meg and I both noticed how good older Europeans look (let's call "older" 40-to-60-year-olds), particularly the women...it has always been my belief that Europeans have "figured it out" because they have a perfect understanding of what makes a true work-life balance shine.  Also, I don't know if I saw a parent bad-mouth a child (just judging from intonation, since I didn't pick up a lick of Greek or Turkish while gone) for two weeks; attitudes on child-rearing are still much more lax over there, which would help explain why European moms look so chill.  I think parents in Europe also believe in dumping their kids on family members or babysitters because something has to explain why so many grown adults can afford to be out without the kids all days of the week...the attention to having your own life or your own agenda of things going on seems more vital to Europeans than it does to us gringos.

I honestly don't know if I could really pick up and move to Europe; there are obviously certain conveniences, advantages and beauties of the American lifestyle, too.  And, I've only been to one city--Rome--where I really could imagine living, in part because I had a guide for the week that I was there; I would really need to scope out some other cities before making these theories a reality.  But, much like the California lifestyle, the European way of life just feels really good, even if it's only for a week or two each year.


Cyprus--Make It Happen!

This will be biased, because my long-time friend Claudia and her husband Ant (a born-and-raised Cypriot) live on the island south of Turkey: you need to roll to Cyprus for an extended weekend of "hangin' out."  Even though Claudia admittedly has "island fever" and may not be living there full-time by this point next year, if you can get over there sometime next spring the Veysel family will show you a great time!

I have been trying to get to Cyprus since Claude moved there a few years ago; we came close in 2007, before choosing to go to Reykjavik over Cyprus and Buenos Aires for that international blowout.  Because of our desire to go to Greece and Turkey for the honeymoon, we added a segment in the middle to get some R&R in Cyprus with Claude to help us do a few things, like reassess the spending, do some laundry, maybe even have some downtime from talking only to each other for the first seven days of the trip.

And, this turned out to be perfect.  The weather was amazing while in Cyprus--high 70s, no rain, no clouds!--we got better restaurants selections than we would have without guides, and we even got to be in town for Ant's somewhat-overdue birthday celebration, which included a two-hour boat trip, food, and drinks at an open-air bar near one of the harbor points near Claude's house.  For three days, we were, as a great man once said, "hangin' out."

CPT--known in some circles as "colored peoples' time" but moving forward known as "Cypriot peoples' time"--is a large part of it; Claudia and Ant move on that hilarious time cycle just as slow as us black people, maybe even slower, which made the whole thing that much more relaxing.  We'd wake up in the morning, Claudia pulled some fresh figs off of her fig tree for Meg, Ant was strolling around the house on a Thursday "working from home", and I was watching satellite Nickelodeon with their son Ben.  During our very casual three days in town, we had a few brandy sours (we're told that's the national drink), there was a veritable American music time warp happening at all the bars we'd walk by in town, blasting 197X disco or bad covers of this music everywhere (but, in a relaxing way)...damn, we even had our best restaurant experience of the trip at the Archway Restaurant, which was two hours of Brazilian churrascaria-style mezzes run at us in hot and cold varieties.  Fact--not only does steak and pork taste good, but tongue tastes good, liver tastes good, and even eggplant tastes...okay.

Hell, I even spent some time in the water at one of the small, sexy, quiet beaches a few miles from Claude's place; this, friends, is what water should look like--clear, blue, inviting.  (In complete darkness on the boat trip later that weekend, you could actually see things below the water's surface...wow, the water was beautiful.)  I can't really rave about Cypriot architecture, and I'll save my thoughts on the Greek/Turkish separation of the island and what that has done politically and socially to the people of the island to another day or another expert; over three days and with the opinion of exactly one family, I can't really report objectively on what all of that means.

I DO know that Cyprus is absolutely worth a visit.  It helps that my friends there are sexy, cultured and connected, but take full advantage of what these people have to offer...I'm just glad I got the chance to spend the time with them!


Bodrom--It's All About the Bed and Breakfast

Bodrom was always meant to be a quick stopover for us to get some beach time and maybe even some club time in one of Turkey's hottest summer nightspots.  Here's what really happened: we had a pimp-ass suite hotel room, a fantastic gay Irish couple serving as our hosts, a complete lack of hot nightlife thanks to it being the end of the tourist season, and a total bust in terms of sexy beaches.

In other words, it was all good.

The Aegean Gate Hotel was our home for two days; like most of the B&Bs I stay in, I picked it because it was one of the top choices on Trip Advisor.  Friends, I got lucky on this one--the six rooms at the property are immaculate, the views of the town are stunning, the breakfast options were good, and the hosts gave us great recommendations for restaurants.  And, since we had great weather during this part of the trip, it was warm during the daytime, so we got some pool time in at the hotel and our walks at night were warm and comfortable.  Did I mention that we got fireworks one night while sitting at an open-air restaurant in the main Bodrom harbor?

Besides the time of year that we were there--at what was the end of tourist season, the town was actually a little too quiet for my tastes--the main problem with Bodrom is that...well, it's in Turkey.


The Turkish Way of Life--Orderly, It Is Not

We flew from Cyprus to Bodrom on an early morning flight out of Ercan, the airport on the Turkish side of Cyprus.  When we arrived in Bodrom and got to its podunk airport, we noticed something--there was a Turkish Airlines attendant with a sign indicating that passengers that had come in to the airport from an international destination should go to one terminal, and those that came in from a domestic destination should go to the other.  I didn't know what the fuck to do, so I picked domestic.

When we got to the terminal's baggage claim area, our bags did not appear after all of the other passengers' bags had.  So, we asked someone from Turkish Airlines where our bags were.  They had come in on the same flight but had been delivered on the international side of the building.  As this was about a half-mile away, we had to be driven there to get our bags.

With our bags successfully retrieved, we walked outside and looked for a bus with the familiar "Havas" logo, meaning that it was the Turkish Airlines-partnered bus line that takes its passengers to the Bodrom city center.  We looked for this bus and couldn't find it, so then we went about asking about a dozen airport employees where to find the bus.  None of these people knew where to point us, nor did they seem particularly interested in helping us find that bus.  Meg spotted one coming around to the terminal, so we ran outside to catch it.  After boarding the bus, the driver told us that he was going to wait for a few other passengers to arrive--to fill the bus--before departing for Bodrom.  That took an hour.  And then, guess where the bus took us? 

Back to the domestic terminal, where a larger Havas bus was picking up people to go to the city center.

Now, I tell you this story because this is a great way to describe the Turkish sense of order...truth be told, there really isn't any process built into, well, anything.  Turkish people, Turkish rules, Turkish bartering and Turkish baths just don't make any sense...that is fine, if you are Turkish, but for me, even on vacation, the lack of structure drove me nearly insane.  In large stretches in Bodrom, there were no street signs.  Literally, none.  None on the sidewalks, none posted on street corners, none posted on the sides of buildings about 15 feet high (typical in Europe)...no damned street signs.  Calls for prayer were, I thought, supposed to come five times a day, but on many days, these sounded taped...some days, they were live.  They were never done at the same time each day, so one day, the first call (about two minutes of prayer text read) came around 5:30 AM...another day, at 4:45 AM.  One day, we did a boat tour on the Bosphorous River in Istanbul, a two-hour round trip that started at one of the main harbor points.

Well, I'll be damned if that tour didn't promise to start and end at the same place...so, after getting picked up at the harbor, the boat tour ended at a different harbor, about a mile further north up-river.  Some tourists getting off the boat didn't know exactly where they were or how to get back to the main drag...and, naturally, no Turks bothered to tell anyone.

Turkey just made me angry sometimes when it came to this sort of thing; I just have a baseline expectation of what people will do, and Turks take that expectation and toss it away like the stray pets they leave littered all over the place.  Have some respect for a sense of order, for crying out loud!  (Notable exception to this rule--the tram system in Istanbul, shockingly, is fucking money.  Trams are running every few minutes, they are clean, they are informative, and everyone seems to use them.  It's almost like some foreign government designed the tram system for the Turks, because there's just no way these people came up with it on their own.)


Istanbul--The End of the Journey

In some ways, Istanbul got the shaft; after almost two weeks alone together, trip fatigue setting in, and the fact that Meg and I hadn't done anything productive for about three weeks (to include the wedding time), we were a little bit done with the whole vacation thing.  After landing in town and taking the tram to a walk that took us by some major attractions before getting to our hotel (shocker: no street signs), we dumped the stuff and took a walk over to the Blue Mosque and Ayasofya (sometimes referred to as Hagia Sophia) to soak in the scene before taking a nap.  That nap ended with a call to prayer--another common thing you have to work around to get sleep in Istanbul--and dinner that night was interrupted by a large cockroach walking right through Meg's legs while we were sitting at an outdoor café.

Still, I could see why so many people I know rave about Istanbul; its architecture, the latticework on many of the ornate building exteriors, the price point, its carpets...all good.  The look of the Turkish people was a bit drab for me; I kept hoping to turn a street corner and see four guys wearing bright orange shirts and two women to not be clothed from nearly head-to-toe, but these scenarios never unfolded.  That's still okay--culturally, I was very intrigued by Turkish people, and I'm wishing I could have had a conversation or two with the locals just to get a better sense of the people.  All I can really judge is that as an outsider, I deserve to be treated like a customer everywhere I go, but not in a good way...man, I was getting hit up to buy food/products/services EVERYWHERE for three days, which at a point led to me pre-empting these solicitations by holding my hand out to say no, or not making eye contact, or just saying "No thank you!" any time got too close to me.

Istanbul did provide the most disappointing sight on this trip--the Grand Bazaar.  I was really expecting a cool spectacle with 85% of the products being crap, trinkets, or crappy trinkets; loads of different artisans selling prints of domestic painters, or Turkish-branded clothing, amongst a wide array of scarves, robes, carpets, and other traditional Turkish gifts; and masses of people selling items with no price tags and lots of bartering going on.

So, so wrong was I!!  The products at the bazaar are more like 98.2% crap, bordering on shit; instead of lots of robe sellers or any kind of original artwork, you've got tons of American and European clothing made in Turkey and sold at export prices...why anyone would come to Turkey to buy a $30 Ralph Lauren t-shirt when you can get the same shirt here for $30 is beyond me.  There were a ton of scarves being hawked, and a ton of "I Love Turkey" t-shirts, and a ton of chess/checkerboard sets being sold.  But, the overall lack of product diversity mixed with more than 500 shopkeeps hitting me up to come into their hut turned me off to the Bazaar 15 minutes after walking in.  Ugh, I really wanted the Bazaar to shine and it did not!

Here are the positives on Istanbul--the food, generally, was better than it was in Greece, which was big on this trip.  Occasionally, it was too expensive for what it was, but it was still decent.  Istanbul is a fantastic walking town, I mean amazing walking town; during the summer with warmer nights, staying where we did behind the Blue Mosque, I think Istanbul might have been a really memorable experience.  And, even though it served as a wake-up call on two of my mornings in town, the whole call to prayer thing was really a spectacle and would have been more interesting if I had done more work to be around a mosque during these calls.  Culturally, Istanbul's differences from America make it worth a trip, even if I don't have a desire to go back.


Honeymoon #1: Conclusions

Overall, Meg and I vary on our opinions about the individual trip locations but we both agree that Santorini is a place that you need to go even if you have already been before.  We'll probably go back as part of a Greek Isles tour; rent a yacht, hit Mykenos and a few other locations, then end up in Santorini before flying home.  Just an amazing visual.

Also, we know that Cyprus isn't London, Paris or Moscow, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't roll the dice to hang out there.  Sure, my opinion is biased because one of my best long-time friends lives there, but certainly as part of another trip, I think three or four days in Cyprus is a winner.  Good price point, great views, sexy beaches and drama (thanks to the fact that the island is basically two countries rolled into one) will make it a nice story for you to add to your travelogue.

And, we have decided that at least until we have kids, we've got to do a honeymoon every year.  As I mentioned at the start of this essay, that will be Japan next year; so, if you just happened to go to Japan recently, are from Japan or speak fluent Japanese, give me a jingle...we've got some things to talk about!

The main goal of our first honeymoon?  Still be married when we came back.  That was a success!

 

Random Bellviews, courtesy of Bell and Longer Community Trust:

  • Meg:  Opening Weekend

  • Turkish meatballs: $9.50 Show

  • The views in Santorini...the cost of Santorini:  Matinee

  • Watching locals literally kick stray dogs out of their restaurants: Rental

  • Wiping your ass and then realizing that instead of the toilet, you were supposed to throw your dirty toilet paper into the trash can right next to you (ahh, the septic tank!):  Hard Vice

 

justin@bellviewmovies.com


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